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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 [44:16]
Symphony No. 2 [41:31]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London; 25 May 2008 (1); 27 September 2008 (2)
LPO 0043 [44:16 + 41:31]

Symphony No. 3 [35:52]
Symphony No. 4 [39:43]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London; 27 October 2010 (3); 28 May 2011 (4)
LPO 0075 [76:22]

I was inspired to explore these discs — it’s difficult to call them a set, for reasons I’ll go into below — when I saw that the LPO had released these recordings on vinyl. It’s a trend that several record companies have gone in for and will please audiophiles who never abandoned their turntables.

Interestingly, Richer Sounds in Edinburgh told me recently that vinyl was by far their biggest growth market. I should stress, though, that I didn’t listen to the LPs: I’m of the generation that never owned a turntable and haven’t, yet, seen fit to get one. Instead, it was the CDs that I got hold of. Jurowski’s Brahms recordings had rather passed me by when they first emerged, so I’ll be writing here about the performances with only passing references to the sound quality.

Jurowski is very much of the Chailly/Gardiner/Manze school of more recent Brahms interpreters. In other words, he seeks to de-clutter our view of Brahms by bringing more lithe tempi and more translucent textures. He sweeps away the heft and, to an extent, the power of more “classic” interpreters such as Karajan or Klemperer.

The first thing that strikes you about No. 1 is that very lean-ness of sound, though this isn’t always to the gain. The first movement, for example, seldom quickened my pulse in the way that it should, and that isn’t just because the “sustained” introduction is played rather quickly. The string tone felt pared back just a little too much, lacking the teeth of the more powerful performances. Jurowski is clearly closer to Chailly than to Karajan here, but for me he trims too much and loses oomph. The great sweeping violin theme that Brahms introduces at the start of the development, for example, doesn’t sweep: instead it seems to drift with little sense of power. However, things improve from then on in. Jurowski’s approach suits the slow movement much better, which here sounds like well observed chamber music, flowing with transparency and tenderness, something that is also true of the lightly tripping third movement. The finale benefits from that cleaner sound, the brass in particular shining like the noonday, not just in the famous horn solo but also in the trombone chorale that follows it. The big string theme, when it enters, sounds rather quiet, but this gives it more room to grow. Jurowski’s pacing of the coda was, I thought, rather idiosyncratic, but the final chords at least carry enough heft to justify the ovation, which the sound editors leave in place at the end of all the symphonies except No. 3, whose quiet ending is allowed to hang in the air. Incidentally, Jurowski observes the exposition repeat here, as in the second and third symphonies.

There is a good balance of warmth and austerity in No. 2. The first movement is most definitely on the fast side, but Jurowski uses this to produce a rocking, alluring tempo that definitely took me in. The LPO string tone is also fabulous, especially in the middle instruments: listen to the way the cellos surge as they introduce the opening movement’s second subject, or the way the violas pick up the main theme of the slow movement — around the 2-minute mark — all chocolaty richness and mellow depth. That movement is also on the fast side, but that lends strength to the outburst that occurs in the central section, whose power is heightened all the more by the clean-ness of the textures that Jurowski has evidently worked so hard on. The Allegretto, by contrast, is light as a feather and trips along in a winningly carefree way, and the finale is so fast that it quivers on the verge of unplayability. That they are able to carry it off not only speaks for their skill as musicians, but makes a tremendously exciting listen, culminating in a gloriously ebullient final dash for the finish line, blazing in the clarity of its attack.

Things feel a little different by the time of the second disc, however. This was recorded years later. The second, third and fourth movements of No. 3 still sound a little faster, but the opening movement is about as four-square and familiar as you might imagine, with a gloriously rich violin sound that tears down that opening phrase with just a hint of wallowing in the legato. I wonder if Jurowski had moderated his approach to Brahms somewhat in the two intervening years? If he did then it isn’t a loss, as I enjoyed this Third immensely. Not only do you have that muscular opening movement, with surprisingly transparent middle textures, but the Andante is delicate and poised, without ever a sense of lingering for its own sake. The cellos sound ravishing in the Allegretto, and so does the solo horn that comes later. The finale is fast enough to be tremendously exciting, most notably in the cutting string figures that end the exposition, here sharp as knives. They then give way to a coda that has a beautifully realised return of the first movement’s opening, on strings so delicate as to disappear in the mist.

No. 4 brings yet another development. In fact, it’s almost as though Jurowski has either forgotten or intentionally moved away from the Brahms doctrine that he was preaching in the first two symphonies. With the exception of the Scherzo, which sounds lithe and agile, tempi are no more noticeably fast than you would find with older figures like Karajan or Böhm, and there seems to be a lot more seriousness in the air. Nothing wrong with that but part of me wonders if Jurowski was just a little intimidated by the scale and reputation of the Fourth? Even if he was, it’s still a very good performance, and would be worth having even if it weren’t part of a series. The string tone is noticeably fuller in the opening figures of the first movement, and the cellos have a brooding sweep to them as they introduce the second subject. The overall feeling is that we are entering a world of solemnity, even tragedy in the Furtwängler mode. That is underlined when we reach the slow movement: few conductors can have articulated those opening fanfares with such a sense of moment – a sign that we are on the threshold of something big. The string sound at the reappearance of the second subject is thick and grand, very central European. That Furtwänglerian sense of tragedy is stamped all over the momentous finale, though. The statement of the theme is serious and unyielding if not quite as majestic as you’ll hear it in the hands of Böhm or, later, Chailly. The most impressive section is the strings: the pizzicati of the first two variations seem to snarl, and when the violins swirl their way through the fourth variation they do so with all the ardour of an operatic aria. From there the passion culminates in the violins giving a biting, incisive take on their line that seems to leave the rest of the orchestra in the shade. That flute variation then takes on an air of ineffable longing, and when the tempo returns to Allegro the momentum that it builds is unstoppable. The coda sounds almost like an infernal machine, though I didn’t approve of Jurowski’s rather fanciful playing around with the tempo.

All this underlined the idea that, for me, this isn’t a cycle of Brahms symphonies: rather it’s a set of four performances recorded and gathered separately. There is no overall theme running through, and there are even some significant interpretative differences between the first two and last two symphonies. That’s not a criticism, necessarily, and you could quite rightly argue that there is nothing wrong with that. The good things are very good and worth seeking out, though I wonder if they really have much staying power in light of the competition? The inconsistency of the interpretations will probably rule them out for anyone wanting a “cycle”, though you could argue the same point for Furtwängler’s performances, which aren’t even all with the same orchestra. If you’re a fan of Jurowski’s work with the LPO then I doubt you’ll be disappointed with any of these. Those who want to cast the net wider will find the best of the old school with Karajan’s Berlin set from the 1970s, and the best of the new school with Chailly’s recent Leipzig set.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn